Kara Powell

Dr. Kara Powell is the chief of leadership formation and executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary in California. Powell regularly speaks at parenting and leadership conferences and has written several books including “3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager: Making the Most of Your Conversations and Connections.” Powell lives in Pasadena with her husband, Dave. They have three children.

What three questions does every teenager ask?

Powell and her coauthor, Brad M. Griffin, conducted 27 in-depth interviews and surveyed more than 2,200 teenagers for “3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager.”

“We want to provide conversations and connections that a leader, mentor, parent, stepparent, caregiver or grandparent can do and say with young people to … hopefully transition teenagers to Jesus’ better answers to those three questions,” Powell said. “So, we try to help an adult know how to ask questions to unearth how a young person is currently answering those questions. We accompany kids from where they are now to these better answers.”

The three main questions are:

1. Who am I? A question of identity. “In terms of how they defined and described themselves and who God made them to be, a real common theme was they didn’t feel like they measured up or were enough,” Powell said. “They didn’t feel like they were smart enough, talented enough, attractive enough or popular enough. For kids of color, they not only felt that, but they often felt like they also weren’t say Latino enough or black enough as they have a foot in multiple worlds.”

2. Where do I fit? A question of belonging. Belonging is our connection with others and how we fit in with groups of people.

“We might say we belong when we’re with those who really know, understand and accept us for who we are,” Powell added. “We are a society marked by loneliness and disconnection. We have so many reasons for telling people they don’t belong because of their personality, neighborhood, income, race, ethnicity, immigration status or disability. We have friends and followers and fans on social media, but these connections often only remind us who isn’t following us or where we don’t belong. We want to belong so badly that we will go to great lengths—even hiding or changing parts of our identity or pursuing a false sense of purpose—to feel it. We all long for a more permanent sense of belonging, one that isn’t qualified by whether we feel safe enough to be ourselves, we share the right things or we’re needed.”

3. What difference can I make? A question of purpose. This points to the importance of our contribution to the world.

“Our understanding of our purpose evolves over our lifetime, with adolescence and young adulthood often being seasons of escalating clarity. Purpose unites two interests: what’s worthwhile to us as well as what’s consequential for the world around us,” she said. “Our lives and the things we do matter, not because we perform for others’ expectations, rules or scripts, but because our stories help advance the greater story of God through Jesus Christ. Our lives don’t become meaningful because we’re helping others … our lives matter because we are part of the ongoing plot of what God has done, is doing and will do in our world.”

Was there something that surprised you about how teens answered your questions?

According to the Census Bureau, more than 50% of American residents under 18 are people of color. Twenty of the 27 in-depth interviews for Powell’s book were with people of color.

“For kids of color, we saw how many extra challenges they deal with,” Powell said. “When it comes to these three big questions, kids who are black, Latino, Asian and of other ethnicities and races often have an extra layer of challenges as they’re navigating multiple worlds, including often a white-dominant culture. A lot of kids of color are grounded in extended families, so the way that they talked about aunts, uncles and grandparents was often more involved than kids who were white. They had an extra layer of support.”

Do you believe being a teenager is harder today than a generation or two ago?

One constant across every generation is that every teenager faces challenges.

“I think every cohort of adolescents, each generation of young people are navigating identity, belonging and purpose questions, and they have unique assets and challenges based on the era in which they’re growing up and developing that bring their own nuances to those questions,” Powell said.

Powell said she believes today’s teenagers are defined by these three adjectives:

1. Anxious: Parents must be aware that teens have more mental health challenges, such as depression or eating disorders.

2. Adaptive: Today’s teens are creative, resilient and innovative. In terms of “purpose,” they are using their unique skillset to make the world a better place by taking advantage of service and justice opportunities.

3. Diverse: “Whatever their ethnicity, whatever their geography, these questions of identity, belonging and purpose in a diverse world where there’s a lot of anxiety and they need to be adaptive are just common questions in every young person we talked with,” Powell said.